The boys and I spent our last day together watching Quemar las Naves. We had seen a preview that made us think it would have the same ethereal magic of El Dividio Cielo (Broken Sky), we were wrong.
Siblings, Helena and Sebastien, live in a crumbling “mansion” with their dying mother trying to find their way in the world. Helena has given herself completely over to caring for her mother and dreams of world travel. As a result, she is a shrill, controlling, and bitter woman who smothers her brother with an increasingly inappropriate affection. Sebastien, on the other hand, lives his life in quiet retreat. He lets himself be led by his sister and his bestfriend Efrain while expressing his dreams and desires through painting in his room. Even his painting is stunted however by Helena’s constant incursions into his room without permission.
The siblings insular lives begin to unravel when their mother dies and a new boy in school, Juan, captures Sebastien’s attention.
As Juan becomes increasingly important to Sebastien, Efrain is forced to confront his own desires and the obligations of his aristocratic life. Even tho he intially chooses Sebastien, his body guards soon put an end to that one shining moment when he tries to break free. When presented with the opportunity a second time, Efrain does not need body guards to drag him back to the “safety” of his wealth and position; he knows what Sebastien has always known, Efrain is a coward.
Sebastian is only slightly better. While Juan gives him the impetus to spread his wings and imagine a different life, when Efrain engineers an incident to force Juan to leave, Sebastian does not go with him. At the last minute, he loses his nerve and instead returns to a life of stifled self-destruction. There is some indication that he is abused as a result of his growing self-hate but nothing takes place on screen to confirm this. Instead we see him reach the depths of his despair and loathing when he gives in to the unspoken desires Helena has foisted on him the entire film. (To her credit, Helena pulls back at the last minute and uses the incident as an impetus to finally sell the mansion and set the siblings free.)
Quemar las Naves tries to cover too much ground without covering much of anything. It’s disjointed narrative and intense moments between the siblings are meant to be atmospheric but instead make some of the main characters unlikeable and the story feel disconnected or unfinished.
All of the women in this film are obnoxious to some extent. Helena is mean and bitter. Their roommate, Aurora, is a babbling idiot. And the films fails to give us a strong enough background story on the children’s mother for us to understand why her slow decline is such a magnet to them and Efrain’s family.
Worse they all function as plot devices more than three dimensional characters. Despite all of her controlling behavior, Helena is ultimately acted upon as much as any other women there. Thus their mother becomes the bind by which Helena ties everyone else to her, any care for her mother has long left until her final death. Sebastian is forced to come out when Helena discovers and destroys his painting of Juan, but Sebastian simply responds by backhanding her hard enough to split her lip and leave crawling on the floor a foot away. (And while she deserved his anger, the scene sanctions the beating of a woman both in depicting it and in Helena’s response, which is to move Sebastien into her room and barracade them inside for days trying to force him to love her.) And Aurora is so stupid she does not even notice that Efrain is in love with Sebastien, and thinks the night they hookup is real desire and not Efrain trying to bury his own fear of the queer deep inside her.
Dealing specifically with the queer content of the film, it is largely homoerotic and homosocial rather than outwardly queer. The film sets out to tell a story of repression, awakening, fear, and freedom but does not commit to its characters and its basic storyline in a way that can make these emotions seem real or compelling to viewers. Thus Efrain comes across as a bully and a fool, until a particularly poorly executed scene it is also unclear that Juan returns Sebastien’s feelings, and while Sebastien starts out as a likeable character, Juan’s exit quickly reduces him to entirely unsympathetic cowardice, self-abuse, and violence. It is, in short, a regressive narrative that fails at every key level.
While it does wonders with imagery in some places (see the positives below) it also uses far too many overwrought images to make its point. Helena is constantly singing a song about leaving and becoming free without the things that tie her down. Sebastien’s teacher, a nun, is having a relationship with the school handy man and ultimately leaves her calling to be with him. The head priest at the school is a drunk whose cloistered bitterness hangs in the background. Efrain’s father’s attention to Sebastien’s mother keeps him stuck in place where there is no hope of securing love. All of these heterosexual back stories are meant to mirror the homosexual journey of Sebastien but none of them do as compelling a job as the moments when the film simply focuses in on Sebastien and Juan.
The movie has good bones. Both the story it wants to tell and the actors it casts to tell them are interesting. Some of the more atmospheric moments in the film shine in ways that make you want to root for the overall success of the movie. When Juan takes Sebastien into the forbidden area of the school and entice him through the corridors to an end that leaves him physically broken, it is not only a wonder to watch but it is the best parts of the plot delivered in a single scene. When the two boys go to “the ocean” it is both amazingly intimate and erotic in ways the film itself fails to be. And when Sebastien goes home and paints an amazing collage of the sea, his longing is palpable. These moments make this film worth watching.
Though Efrain’s struggle is often laid out like a Telenovela it is also the most coherent narrative of the film outside of Sebastien’s own. His character should be recognizable to every viewer and his moments of cruelty, hope, and fear mirror key tropes in queer cinema. Oddly his choices are similar to Michelles in The Secrets, and while I find the look Michelle shared with Naomi when Naomi refused to forgive her more compelling, the moment between Sebastien and Efrain the night he comes home drunk tied their stories back together in a way that gave the film more coherence than it would have otherwise.
Sebastien, Juan, and Efrain are also all played by attractive and diverse actors. In a subtle way, they embody the various types of gay-gender avoiding the often overwrought discussions of gay masculinity and femininity and stereotypes of tops and bottoms that often show up in queer films.
Overall, Quemar las Naves is a film that aches to be better than it was. I cannot help but wonder if the director had been more committed to the storyline if we would have gotten something beautiful b/c when it shines, it shines so bright, you cannot look away.
The film is on sale at all major outlets for $10 or less and can also be rented on Netflix. I would love to hear from any of you who have seen it.